Watford vs. Chelsea : 26 December 2018.
There were times, probably quite some years ago now, when I used to get a considerable tingle with the thought of a Boxing Day game. A post-Christmas treat, there always seemed to be a certain something in the air, an unquantifiable buzz. Something different for sure. Growing up, Boxing Day crowds often used to be the biggest of the entire season. In some campaigns, way before my time, games were played on Christmas Day itself. That practice has long since passed. But in my youth, it would not be odd for Chelsea to play games on Boxing Day and the following day too. From my Ron Hockings’ bumper book of Chelsea games, I see that the last time this happened was in 1986/87 when we played at Southampton on 26 December and at home to Villa on 27 December (two wins which kick-started our season after a very poor first few months). In 1993/94, there was no Boxing Day game, but we played at The Dell on 27 December and at home to Newcastle the following day (a win against the Geordies similarly kick-started a season in which we were in the relegation places under Glenn Hoddle after the Southampton game, thank you very much Mark Stein.) This was the last time we played in consecutive days over Christmas. Our Boxing Day record of late has been exceptional; our last loss on the day after Xmas was a 4-2 defeat at the Valley in 2003. I can remember watching it at home on TV, in the last few weeks of me having Sky. So, here was a fine record to uphold as we made our way to Watford for the evening kick-off.
I was on driving duties and I collected the gruesome twosome, PD and LP, and we then treated ourselves to a Boxing Day lunch – OK, a late breakfast – at a canal side café in Bradford-On-Avon in Wiltshire. I ate up the miles and we were parked at our usual place at the bottom end of the A411 in Watford at about 3.45pm. As with last season, we dipped into “The Horns” pub for a few drinks. A local band were doing a sound check ahead of a tea-time gig and we decided to stay on to see if they were any good.
They played “Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me)” at the sound check. A few levels were adjusted. The band were soon happy. If only football was as easy.
They began with “Message In A Bottle” and then replayed “Make Me Smile.”
“Bloody hell, PD, if they play ‘Message In A Bottle’ again, I’m fucking leaving.”
We stayed for ten more songs, I fell in love with the gorgeous lead singer – she possessed the voice of an angel and everything else to match – and it made for a lovely little start to the evening. We Three Kings then walked along the pedestrianised High Street, which was bedecked in Christmas lights, one bar after another. I am told it is quite lively on a weekend evening. We eventually settled at the packed “Moon Under Water” on the pedestrianised High Street, where many Chelsea faces were based. I was not even allowing myself a single lager, so for the second game in a row, I would be watching without alcohol. After four and a half pints of “Coke” I was bouncing off the walls of the boozer. We sadly learned that both Liverpool and Tottenham had won, yet Manchester City had lost at Leicester City. This made for grim reading. I predicted a dour draw against Watford. At least Arsenal were only drawing at Brighton.
We set off on the short walk to Vicarage Road. My good friend Lynda, now living in Brooklyn, was with us.
“When you were growing up in Pennsylvania, I bet you never envisaged yourself walking through the streets of Watford on Boxing Day.”
Lynda and her husband T had travelled up on the solitary Chelsea coach which had left Stamford Bridge at 4pm. T had stayed at Vicarage Road, where they were dropped-off, so he could watch the players go through their pre-match shuttles and routines. T coaches football in the US and I had visions of him with a notebook and pen, possibly even chewing on some dog ends.
Outside the away end at Vicarage Road the brickwork of the stand rises only twenty feet. Once inside, and once the ridiculously cramped concourse has been navigated, the pitch is way below. I am not sure if it is because a lot of the paintwork in the stadium is black, but Vicarage Road always seems darker, more claustrophobic, than others. It always used to be an untidy stadium in the ‘eighties, with odd stands, shallow terracings some way from the pitch which emphasised its use as an occasional greyhound stadium. But it is a neat stadium these days, quite the right size for the club. To my left, the Sir Elton John Stand, to my right the Graham Taylor Stand. Our end was split between home and away fans. There is infill in the four corners. To my left, a sensory area for those unable to contend with a full-on match experience. In one corner a TV screen. In the opposite corner a corporate area – “The Gallery” – where the stadia’s floodlights were reflected, bending out of shape, in the large windows of the viewing boxes.
I suppose that there was no real surprises that Fag Ash Lil kept the same team that lost to Leicester City. It was, in Sarri’s eyes, his strongest eleven.
Arrizabalaga – Azpilicueta, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso – Kante, Jorginho, Kovacic – Pedro, Hazard, Willian.
Defenders apart, we are such a small team. I wasn’t quite sure how we would match up against the more physical Watford team who handed us a demoralising 1-4 defeat on bleak evening in February last season.
For once, the home end was not a swirling mass of flags as the teams entered the pitch for this 7.30pm kick-off. Watford are now kitted out in yellow and black stripes, for the first time, presumably a nod to their “Hornets” nickname. In my mind, Watford still needs a fleck of red in their home uniform.
The game began. We were close to the front and close to the corner flag. Not only were there occasional gaps in the stand to my left but in our section too. Not many, but enough to be discernible. In the first few moments, with Chelsea controlling possession, Pedro worked a fine opening, coming inside and using Willian, but flashed a shot wide of Ben Foster’s post. Kepa made a hash of a clearance amid howls from the Chelsea support, but no Watford player could capitalise. The Chelsea crowd were in good voice.
But then a song began which immediately caused me concern.
“The shit from Tottenham Hotspur went to Rome to see The Pope…”
I thought “oh fuck” and feared the worst.
Surely not, Chelsea.
The song continued. I didn’t join in. It surprised me how long it lasted…it was torture. Eventually we reached the denouement.
“Barcelona, Real Madrid.”
In that Nano-second, I felt like all of our collective lives flashed before us.
There might have been the odd “Y word” but the overwhelming sound was of people audibly shouting “sssssssshhhhhhh.”
Phew. We had passed the test. Phew again.
The ironic thing is that before the Raheem Sterling incident three weeks’ ago, the song would have ended in its usual fashion and the whole world would have continued on its way. But maybe it is correct that the song has had its day, or at least in its usual form.
Jorginho found Kavacic, who played the ball forward to Willian on the left. His pace set him free but was forced wide and rounded Foster, and his shot struck the outside of the near post. Watford retaliated with the widely booed Deulofeu allowing Doucoure to attempt a shot on goal but Jorginho superbly blocked. Another chance for Watford after a Rudiger error, but Doucoure shot high. Despite their chances, we were still dominating possession.
In front of me, all eyes were on David Luiz, who was involved more than most during the first thirty-minutes. He was often taking control of the ball. Sometimes his passes across the box drew derision from the fans around me. But he was the main passer out of defence, and usually his low balls found their targets. Against Deulofeu, he battled and battled. Going into the game, I had noted that as he fell to his knees to tie his bootlaces, many team mates made a point of walking over to him, to hug him or to shake his hands, sometimes just to touch him, a pat on the back here, a shake there. It felt like he was our talisman, an icon on the pitch for the super-superstitious Sarri.
It was Christmas after all.
But for all of our possession, and movement in the final third, the Watford defence was proving a very tough nut to prise open. It was all about finding pockets of space. But it was a tough task.
“There’s no cutting edge.”
How we longed for a late-arriving midfielder – Frank Lampard, cough, cough – to pounce on a ball played back from the bye-line. But we were hardly reaching the bye-line. This was constipated football with no signs of an outlet. It was as if there was a force field around the Watford goal and we could not penetrate it.
Intricate footwork from the effervescent Pedro allowed Dave set up Hazard who fluffed his lines right in front of the goal, mere feet away. Until that point we had created half-chances. We were turning the screw but I was still not convinced a goal would follow.
A fine Luiz block stopped Troy Deeney from scoring at the other end. Bizarrely, Watford were probably edging the goal-scoring chances.
Things had quietened down now. The home support was ridiculously subdued.
Sadly, Pedro was forced to leave the field with what looked like a thigh strain. He was replaced by Callum Hudson-Odoi, who was then volubly well supported by the away support. Soon after, a break reached Kovacic who advanced before releasing Hazard at just the right time. He was forced wide, like Willian earlier, but he saw enough of the goal once he had rounded Foster and slotted home.
Watford 0 Chelsea 1.
It was goal one hundred in Chelsea colours for our Eden. Team mates joined him and I watched him as his stocky frame jogged over to the bench to embrace Cesc Fabregas. He was full of smiles. It was splendid.
Half-time was just a few moments away.
We had learned that Arsenal had only scratched a 1-1 in Sussex. Suddenly, fourth place was ours.
Right after, Kepa smothered a close shot from Doucoure. From the short corner, we watched in agony as a high ball bypassed everyone and fell at the feet of the completely unmarked Pereyra who met the ball on the volley. It crept into the goal. There was nobody on the posts. Everyone were intent on clearing their lines, like the charge of the light brigade. It was criminal that nobody had picked him up.
Watford 1 Chelsea 1.
Forty-eight minutes had passed.
The second-half began.
Now it was the turn of our attackers, those who often crowded the corner of the pitch in front of me and my camera, to be the focus of my attention. We moved the ball well in that corner, with Hazard, Hudson-Odoi and Willian often involved. A lofted ball from Luiz – did someone mention “quarterback” or did that phrase die with David Beckham’s retirement? – fell for Kante but he was unable to reach it. Our star David was involved in his own box, shoulder-charging away Deulofeu, much to the chagrin of the now roused home support. Goal scoring chances were rare in this opening third of the second-half.
Just before the hour mark, a cute chipped pass from Jorginho – hurrah! – played in Hazard. He appeared to be sandwiched twixt defender and ‘keeper. In the end he was unceremoniously bundled over by Foster, who seemed to push him. The referee Martin Atkinson had an easy decision.
Our Eden waited and waited before sending the goalie to his left. Eden went the other way.
Watford 1 Chelsea 2.
Eden was now up to one-hundred and one Chelsea goals.
For much of his career at our club, Hazard’s tag line could well have been “Eden : Everything But The Goal” but things are hopefully changing. And maybe for longer than just this season.
Chelsea were in full voice again.
Willian, who was steadily improving throughout the second-half scraped the post. Then Kante swiped at goal from outside the box, but his shot went narrowly wide. Although there were not huge amounts of quality on display, the game certainly had enough going on to keep my interest. I was enjoying it. With just one goal between the teams, there was always an edge to the game.
Ross Barkley replaced Kovacic on seventy-eight minutes. We needed to solidify the midfield.
A magnificent ball, a reverse pass, into the box from David Luiz – to whom, I cannot remember – was sublime.
A few more chances fell to Chelsea – punctuated by the substitution of Hudson-Odoi by Emerson, an injury? – came and went with both Willian and Hazard still both driving on deep into the night, and there was more action in our corner in the last moments. Out came the trusty Canon again.
Willian had been involved more and more in the last twenty minutes. On more than one occasion, I saw him breathing heavily, clearly exhausted. He had clearly put in a mighty shift. There is little to choose between Willian and Pedro, but for as long as the manager disregards Morata and Giroud, a decision does not need to be made. The trio of Hazard, Pedro and Willian will suffice. For now we can even call them The Three Wise Men.
Very late chances for Jorginho, Willian and Hazard, had they been converted, would have flattered us a little.
On this night in Watford, a one goal lead would suffice.
At exactly the midway point in the campaign, and after the penultimate game of 2018, fourth place is ours.
See you at Palace.